Dixon's leadership test

February 25, 2007

At her nascent administration's most vulnerable moment, Mayor Sheila Dixon didn't retreat. A city fire cadet had been killed in a training accident. As the mayor learned of negligence by fire officers, detail by infuriating detail, Ms. Dixon told Baltimore what it needed to hear - the truth in all its ugly implications.

She could have deferred to an investigation not yet complete. But instead she showed grit, strength and compassion in sharing the inglorious facts of the Feb. 9 accident: that the death of Cadet Racheal Wilson was likely preventable had her superiors done their jobs - and that firefighters at the training exercise didn't report problems they saw, they didn't question those in charge, and a 29-year-old mother of two was dead.

The silence of firefighters on the scene that day should be at the heart of an independent investigation to be conducted by the Howard County fire department at the request of Mayor Dixon. It goes to the culture of the city fire department, and to some degree, the leadership of Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr., who promoted Battalion Chief Kenneth Hyde Sr., the training academy director and senior officer at the live-burn exercise who has been fired.

The fire training accident would have challenged even a more experienced mayor because the exercise went so terribly wrong in so many ways that it's hard to comprehend. The results of a preliminary investigation released Friday are even more damning than what's been revealed so far:

The report cited 36 violations of national fire safety standards, more than previously mentioned. The investigation revealed faults at every stage of the exercise, including lack of documentation on the rowhouse set afire, an untrained backup crew, empty rescue hose, multiple fires set instead of the required one, a lack of portable radios.

At the peak of the live burn, Cadet Wilson realized she was in trouble and tried to escape the burning house through a window, but it was too high off the ground, according to investigators. At some point, the report notes, Cadet Wilson managed to warn two other recruits to go down the steps and they escaped. Her courage underscores the depth to which she was betrayed by her superiors.

During these past weeks, Mayor Dixon has managed to convey the travesty of Cadet Wilson's death without indicting the entire department. It's up to the mayor now to ensure that Baltimore's future firefighters are properly trained and their safety aggressively defended.

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